“There are many things to say about today’s or yesterday’s match,” Novak Djokovic said after his two-day, three-hour 4-6, 7-5, 7-5 quarterfinal win over Stefanos Tsitsipas in Rome.

He’s not wrong. Djokovic vs. Tsitsipas was one of the best, most intense, most hard-fought contests of 2021 so far. It began under dark clouds and a steady rain on Friday afternoon, and finished in bright sunshine on Saturday afternoon. It commenced with Tsitsipas in calm control and a simmering Djokovic, angry at having to play in dank and drizzly conditions for the second time this week, trying his best not to boil over. It ended with Djokovic, after multiple goal-line stands, raising his hands in the air in triumph. He may have made bigger comebacks over the course of his career, but rarely has he made so many in one match. He may have seethed on Friday and lost his cool and chucked his racquet on Saturday, but he found a way to stay calm when it mattered.

Tsitsipas won the first set, and when play was finally suspended on Friday, he led a distracted and uninspired Djokovic by a set and a break. On Saturday, with the skies cleared, Djokovic was ready to fight. He came back from 2-4 to win the second set. After falling behind again, 1-3 in the third set, he faced four break points. Tsitsipas, swinging for the fences and tracking every ball down, kept winning spectacular points, and looked as if he were about to run away with a significant victory. But Djokovic kept finding ways to save those break points, kept finding ways to hang on to the ledge by his fingernails. He used his first serve, he used his heavy forehand, he used his drop shot, anything to stay alive.

Yet Tsitsipas didn’t relinquish the lead. At 4-4, the two played the point of the match, a long, full-throttle, corner-to-corner rally that saw Tsitsipas take a bigger swing at each ball. Finally, with a 100-m.p.h. backhand, he put a crack in the Djokovic wall. As he watched the Serb’s last forehand land a few inches long, Tsitsipas nearly fell over. He had broken Djokovic’s serve, but, it turned out, he hadn’t broken his will.

Advertising

Djokovic regains control to pass tricky test against Tsitsipas in Rome

Djokovic regains control to pass tricky test against Tsitsipas in Rome

Getty Images

Tsitsipas served for the match at 5-4, but from that point on it was Djokovic, summoning his concentration, putting his anger behind him, and cutting out unforced errors entirely, who would show that, just a few days before his 34th birthday, he’s still the guy with another gear.

Down 4-5, Djokovic won one point with a drop shot and a lob; he won another with amazing side-to-side defense; and he broke with a strong inside-in forehand. At 5-5, Djokovic won one point with a forehand pass, and another with a pair of tricky volleys, and he saved a break point with a first serve and a smash. In the final game, Djokovic seemed to break Tsitsipas' spirit at last with a backhand down-the-line winner.

“It was a bit of luck, a bit of mental strength, right tactics at the right time,” Djokovic said. “Until the last shot, I didn't know whether I was going to win. But I believed that I can. You can always fight and give your best, let the god decide who takes the win.”

As so often happens in Djokovic’s close matches, he took this win in the end. It was one of the year’s most memorable, but it won’t be Djokovic’s last for the day. He’ll go up against Lorenzo Sonego, and a vocal Roman crowd, in the semifinals later today. We’ll see if the god is on his side again.

Djokovic regains control to pass tricky test against Tsitsipas in Rome

Djokovic regains control to pass tricky test against Tsitsipas in Rome